The Man Behind the Globe

Who designed and created the famous Perkins globe?

Entrance hall with oval rotunda and large globe at the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind in South Boston.

The globe in the entrance hall of the Perkins Institution in South Boston, circa 1900.

September 10, 2018

Did you know that there are two unique globes in Watertown’s past? One resides at Perkins, where its 13-foot circumference continues to attract students and visitors alike; the Watertown Free Public Library holds sketches and a patent for the other. Behind the objects lies a tale of local innovators working against the odds for the sake of education. Read on to learn the Perkins’s side of the story; for the Library’s side, visit their blog.

In 1837, Samuel Gridley Howe was determined to make a have a large globe created for Perkins students that is still on display in the Perkins Museum. The resulting globe is impressive: it has a 13-foot circumference, is comprised of over 600 pieces of wood, and features a 53-inch diameter. It is designed to be able to be revolved in any direction. But who designed and created that magnificent object?

Stephen Preston Ruggles was born on July 4, 1808 in Windsor, Vermont. In a 1936 edition of The Lantern, Perkins registrar Anna Gardner Fish, wrote “How fortunate indeed was [Howe] to find at his right hand a helper of understanding mind, or inventive skills and of mechanical knowledge and precision.”

While serving as an apprentice to a tailor at the age of 14, he discovered a “very strong aversion to the business…” (Silver, 8). He changed fields and found an opportunity to work as an apprentice for a printing business. He wrote his Autobiography that, “My taste for mechanism was a natural and not an acquired one, --and while yet a school boy, I had contrived and built several little machines which arrested the attention of some of the mechanics in our neighborhood.” (Silver, 8).

In 1826, Ruggles came to Boston, “an entire stranger in a strange city, without a letter of introduction to any person, and with less than three dollars in money” (Silver, 10). Ruggles continued to create new techniques and build mechanisms for printing as he held temporary or part-time jobs throughout the area including a claim to have invented the first band or belt saw. He says, however, that he did not patent it and it was later patented by other parties (Silver, 12). He lists at least 6 techniques, tools, or presses that he invented between 1826 and 1833.

Portrait of Stephen Preston Ruggles, who is seated, wearing a suit and beard

In 1833, Ruggles accepted an offer to manage the printing “and other mechanical departments” of Perkins (called the New England Asylum and Perkins Institution at the time). As he began his work, he “was pleased with the thought of being really useful to my fellow men...and pursued this occupation with unceasing zeal, untiring devotion, and increasing interest….” (Silver, 13).

In 1835, he built the first printing press for Perkins, revolutionizing the way that books were made available to people who were visually impaired. Some credit him with the development of a new kind of paper and raised typeface for use with the press to improve production (New England Register, 419). Ruggles went on to built printing presses for other institutions for the blind including the American Printing House for the Blind and the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia. He also created tactile maps for use by people who are blind. He left Perkins in 1838, but continued to invent new printing presses and machines. Ruggles died on May 28, 1880 in New Hampshire.

Perhaps because he is most widely known for his advances in printing presses, Ruggles does not include any discussion of the Perkins globe in his Autobiography. Despite this omission, the benefit of and appreciation for Ruggles’ work can still be seen as Perkins students, guests, and celebrities eagerly explore the globe in the Perkins Museum. Students have used the globe throughout Perkins history to learn geography. The globe went through a substantial renovation in 2004 and a paint analysis done in 1982 found that some areas had 12 layers of paint! You can see pictures of the globe over the years in our digital collection of Historic Images of the Globe.

Interested in learning more about how Perkins history parallels and intersects with that of other Watertown institutions? Be sure to visit the Watertown Free Public Library on Tuesday, October 23 at 7 p.m. for Cultivars and Cottages: The History of Perkins in Watertown, an illustrated talk by Perkins’ own Research Librarian Jennifer Arnott.

 

Sources:

The Lantern, Vol. VI, No. 2, December 15, 1936

Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, By American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1881

Silver, Rollo G., ed.. (1979). The autobiography of Stephen P. Ruggles. Printing history: The Journal of the American Printing History Association. (v.1, n.1; pp.7-17.).

The New England Register, Vol. 34, 1880